Beijing gags local media after mine blast kills 203

A massive gas explosion has ripped through a coalmine in north-eastern China, killing at least 203 people.

The disaster comes as soaring energy demand and coal prices encourage mine operators to push output beyond safe limits.

The blast at the Sunjiawan colliery, near Fuxin city, on Monday came about 10 minutes after miners felt a sharp tremor, yet there appears to have been no attempt to evacuate workers.

The combustion of methane gas and coal dust killed 203 miners and trapped 13. Survivors helped bring out 22 injured workers, one of whom was in a coma with head injuries.

Local reports said Chinese authorities ordered a news blackout on the disaster, tightening its grip on press freedom.

The blast is the worst in China’s recent history, and comes after the Premier, Wen Jiabao, ordered a complete overhaul of mine safety standards after two underground disasters late last year, one killing 166 miners in Shaanxi province and the other killing 148 miners in Henan province.

“We must be responsible for the workers, be responsible for the people and be responsible for later generations,” Mr Wen said after a government meeting in January that allocated 51.8 billion yuan ($8 billion) on better mine safety, with some of the money coming from levies on enterprises.

Authorities have also begun penalising officials to sharpen up safety inspections.

After the Henan blast, it was announced that the provincial deputy governor had been given an “administrative warning”, while five others found responsible face possible criminal charges.

China’s coal industry is the largest in the world. Output rose 15 per cent last year to 1.9 billion tonnes as demand from power companies and industries pushed prices up 54 per cent during the year. Coal supplies about 70 per cent of the country’s energy needs.

Last year, accidents in coal mines killed 6027 workers, a 6 per cent decrease from the previous year. But international labour groups believe the real accident toll could be three times higher because many accidents are not reported by the thousands of smaller mines under private control.

Chinese media said 180 mine rescue specialists had been sent to the mine in the heart of the industrial “rust belt” in the region once known as Manchuria. Heavy snow was falling across the region yesterday.

The mine had been working at full output through the week-long Chinese New Year holiday because power stations have been operating with almost empty coal stockpiles for several months.

Workers reported feeling a sudden, strong tremor shake the mine 10 minutes before the blast, Zhang Yunfu, the vice-general manager of Fuxin Coal was quoted as telling the Xinhua news agency. The blast occurred 242 metres underground.

February 15, 2005 By Hamish McDonald
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